SEOUL – U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Seoul on Friday on the second leg of his Asia tour as new satellite images suggested North Korea is defiantly reading a nuclear test.
Pyongyang’s apparent push could further complicate Obama’s visit to a country raw with emotion, where around 300 people are dead or missing after a ferry carrying hundreds of schoolchildren capsized last week.
Obama is expected to offer personal condolences to his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun-hye, over the tragedy, but Seoul’s unpredictable neighbor is set to dominate the agenda.
Satellite photos taken just two days ago showed additional activity at the Punggye-ri test site that is “probably related to preparations for a detonation,” the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said. The report echoed recent warnings from South Korea that the North might be planning a test to coincide with Obama’s two-day visit.
If Pyongyang presses ahead with its fourth nuclear test, it will be a clear challenge to Obama’s bid to reiterate the U.S. role as a Pacific power. His four-nation Asian tour began in Tokyo, where he urged China to rein in its wayward ally, saying Beijing has a “critically important” role to play in defusing tensions on the volatile peninsula.
“North Korea has engaged in provocative actions for the last several decades,” he said. “It’s been an irresponsible actor on the international stage for the last several decades.
“They are the most isolated country in the world. They are subject to more international sanctions and international condemnation than any country in the world.”
In an interview ahead of his arrival in Seoul, he warned Pyongyang could expect a “firm response” if it makes “the mistake” of conducting another nuclear detonation.
Pyongyang, for its part, slammed Obama’s trip earlier this week as a “dangerous” move that would escalate military tension and bring the “dark clouds of a nuclear arms race” over the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea watchers have puzzled over whether the test preparations they have seen via spy satellites are real, or bravado aimed at stealing the limelight during the president’s tour.
But the latest images suggested increased movement of vehicles and materials near what are believed to be the entrances to two completed test tunnels, the U.S.-Korea institute said on its closely followed 38 North website. Also visible were probable command and control vehicles intended to provide secure communications between the test site and other facilities.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013. The 38 North post noted that preparations for the test in February last year had peaked two or three days before detonation. The withdrawal of all equipment, vehicles and personnel had occurred immediately before the blast.
“Whether North Korea will follow the same timeline in 2014 remains unclear,” it said.
Any nuclear test would overwhelm the narrative of Obama’s regional tour, billed as a chance to reinvigorate his rebalancing of U.S. strategy toward the region. But it would also have the effect of uniting Japan, South Korea and the United States in condemnation and would place China in a deeply embarrassing spot.
However, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok also acknowledged it could be a “deception tactic” aimed at rattling a few cages in the region during Obama’s tour. “We are thinking of possibilities that the North may stage a surprise nuclear test or just pretend to stage a nuclear test,” Kim said.
In a briefing for the foreign media Thursday, a senior government official said the North had sealed a tunnel at the Punggye-ri site.
Separately Friday, a South Korean Navy vessel fired warning shots after two North Korean patrol boats crossed the disputed maritime border, just before Obama arrived in Seoul. The two North Korean boats, which normally serve to keep fishing boats on the right side of the boundary, crossed “one nautical mile south” into South Korean waters, a ministry official said.
The predawn incursion prompted a South Korean naval ship to fire several warning rounds, after which the two vessels retreated to the North side of the border.
While a U.S. presidential visit would normally be expected to command the lion’s share of attention in South Korea, the country remains preoccupied with the misery wrought by the sinking of the passenger ferry. Divers raced against time and tide Friday to recover the 121 bodies still believed trapped in the sunken vessel, with bad weather expected to close in on Saturday, hampering the effort.
In an interview with the Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper ahead of his visit, Obama said he and his wife, Michelle, offered their “deepest condolences to the South Korean people.”After a summit and a formal dinner with Park later Friday, Obama on Saturday will visit some of the 28,500 U.S. service members stationed in South Korea, before heading on to Malaysia and the Philippines.